Energising the Right to Information in Karnataka
Posted by rtiact2005 on June 17, 2006
Energising the Right to Information in Karnataka
The Right to Information (RTI) is the right to secure access to information held by the government and the corresponding duty upon a public body to make information available. RTI today is universally acknowledged as a fundamental human right, effectively contributing to the promotion of transparency, accountability and public participation in governance – the three key ingredients for “Good Governance” as defined by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). India has the distinction of being among one of the few nations in the world to have enacted a national legislation on the Right to Information.
Karnataka is one of the states that took the initiative to enact its own Right To Information (RTI) legislation while the Central RTI Act was still in the making. The Karnataka Right to Information Act (KRIA) was enacted in 2000, and came into effect in July 2002 when the Karnataka Right to Information Rules were notified. Despite some of its lacunae, KRIA does provide reasonable scope to set in place a system through which citizens can access information that they want from the government.
Implementation Audit of the Karnataka Right to Information Act, 2000(November 2002 – April2003)
A comparison of RTI legislation across the country shows that KRIA is a relatively progressive legislation. The real test however lies in its implementation. With the realisation that unless KRIA genuinely serves the information needs of the people it would amount to nothing, Public Affairs Centre (PAC), Bangalore and Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI), New Delhi, embarked on a joint effort of to conduct the ‘Implementation Audit’ of KRIA in November 2002.
The idea behind the field assessment was to assess the implementation of KRIA in Bangalore, and in doing so, generate valuable citizen feedback/recommendations that would be relayed to the government.
The Audit was purely a volunteer-driven initiative – its findings based on documentation of volunteers’ observations. Twenty public authorities were approached and 100 applications submitted between November 2002 and April 2003. The Audit sought to answer the question of whether the right to information was working in Bangalore. The response of public authorities varied and they were ‘rated’ as ‘Responsive’, ‘Tentative’ or ‘Inactive’ based on certain criteria. Agency Factsheets provided a complete picture of the public authorities in the context of implementing KRIA.
Public Hearing on the findings of the Implementation Audit of KRIA (May 2003)
A Public Hearing was held on May 16, 2003 to present the findings of the Implementation Audit of the Karnataka Right to Information Act, 2000, which was well attended by key functionaries of major service providers, media persons and a cross-section of civil society. Once the findings of the Implementation Audit were presented, PAC and CHRI put forth several recommendations for effectively implementing the Act across agencies in Bangalore. The officials responded by sharing their perceptions and constraints vis-à-vis KRIA. PAC also offered to provide assistance to the Bangalore Mahanagara Palike to enhance awareness regarding the Act. The hearing ended on a positive note with officials promising to undertake some broad measures for better implementation of KRIA.
Follow-up BMP Audit (June 2003 onwards)
After the Public Hearing in May 2003, Public Affairs Centre decided to consciously adopt a BMP-centred approach. The Audit had revealed extremely low levels of awareness and responsiveness of the BMP w.r.t KRIA – of the 49 applications made to the BMP not even one was responded to. , The BMP Commissioner had promised to put systems in place for effective information delivery, and the follow-up audit was to verify the veracity of these promises. Volunteers were requested to file fresh applications to the various zonal offices of the BMP.
The Public Hearing and Follow-Up Audit resulted in positive response by the BMP. Volunteers observed that:
- Headquarters Assistant in zonal offices were delegated to deal with requests for information – earlier, there was no one assigned to accept applications under KRIA.
- Greater awareness and responsiveness in some BMP offices Zonal offices were more organised to provide information to the public –separate registers were kept to record KRIA applications
- Information delivery was quicker and according to procedure
Though the BMP started providing information, doubts about the authenticity of data still persisted. Though problems continued, there was a notable rise in the response rate of public authorities.
KRIA Katte – a Forum for Right to Information in Karnataka
Non-governmental organisations, consumer & human rights groups, and members of local residents’ associations have been actively working on the right to information cause in Karnataka. Meetings to appraise one another on their efforts to procure information under KRIA revealed that they all had faced (and continued to face) similar barriers to information. These included: reluctance on the part of government officials to provide information, considerable delays in cases where information was provided, and numerous lacunae in the provisions of the Act itself. These experiences pointed to the following irrefutable conclusion: the right to information was not working in Karnataka.
Against this backdrop, the ‘KRIA Katte (Forum)’ was formed in July 2004 for interested groups and individuals to meet, share experiences and spread awareness about the right to information in Karnataka. Furthermore, in light of the loopholes in the provisions of KRIA, the Forum could devise strategies for effective implementation of RTI in Karnataka, and also serve as a nodal vehicle of advocacy.
The idea of the Katte was mooted at a meeting jointly organised by Parivartan, Delhi and the Rejuvenate India Movement, Bangalore on 2nd July 2004. Several civil society groups from Bangalore were present at the meeting. The decision to set up a platform was inspired by similar successful initiatives in Mumbai and Delhi, where groups have been active in enforcing citizens’ right to know.
The main objectives of the Katte are:
1.To spread awareness about the right to information, and enable citizens and groups across the state to access information under the KRIA
2.To disseminate and replicate positive experiences in using the Act
3.To discuss problems encountered in using KRIA & devise strategies to overcome the same
4.To act as a rallying point for advocating administrative and legal reforms with regard to RTI
The Katte is open to any non-partisan individual, group, association, etc that has used the Act or is interested in using it. Public Affairs Centre (PAC) has volunteered to provide the initial Secretarial support to the Forum. A yahoo group – firstname.lastname@example.org – has been created by Rejuvenate India Movement (RIM) and is being managed/moderated by PAC. The yahoo-group seeks to provide a virtual forum for citizen activists in Karnataka to share their experiences on the use of the Karnataka Right to Information Act. Those interested in joining may kindly send a request for membership email@example.com.
Members of the KRIA Katte meet on a Saturday of every month – the first meeting was held in Bangalore on 24th July 2004.
Symposium on “Making the Right to Information Act work in Karnataka” (September 2004)
Despite its weaknesses, the Karnataka RTI legislation is still considered as relatively progressive compared to similar laws in other states. The challenge, therefore, for both civil society groups and the government, is to ensure effective implementation of the law to secure citizens’ right to information.
It is in this context that the KRIA Katte had organised a half-day long Symposium on “Making the Right to Information Act work in Karnataka” on Sep 4, 2004 at Bangalore. The workshop elicited participation from prominent jurists, senior government officials, media persons and civil society activists.
The main objectives of the Symposium were to:
1.Discuss experiences and articulate amendments to fill the existing lacunae in the Act
2.Critically review administrative arrangements for effective implementation of KRIA
3.Discuss the implications of the national Right to Information law (FOIA or an Amended FOIA) co-existing with KRIA at the state level.
Several eminent persons participated in the symposium as Panellists and resource persons including Dr. Samuel Paul (Chairman – Public Affairs Centre), Dr. A. Ravindra (Former Chief Secretary, Government of Karnataka), Mr. G. Dakshina Moorthy (Secretary, Department of Parliamentary Affairs & Legislation), Mr. M. K. Poonacha (Under Secretary, Department of Personnel & Administrativ
The symposium began with an official launch of the KRIA Katte. Following this, civil society organisations and individuals from across the state shared their experiences in using KRIA. Their narration brought to fore several obstacles they had to face in government offices for accessing information under KRIA. There were some positive and success stories too. In the second session, Mr. Poonacha, while acknowledging lacunae in the implementation of the act, spoke of the initiatives taken by the DPAR for increasing awareness of the Act in rural areas and amongst the government officers. He appealed to the citizens to bring to the DPAR’s notice, any delays and denial of information requested under KRIA and assured that officials who do not respond to requests within the specified time-frame will be penalised as per the provisions of the act.
The session on the Central Freedom of Information Act, summarized the current initiatives at the central level to amend and strengthen the Central Freedom of Information Act. This lead to the next logical session where legal and constitutional experts debated the possibility of co-existence of the State act with the Central Act.
Thereafter, the Katte presented its recommendation for strengthening both the legislative and administrative components of KRIA. The Symposium concluded with a panel discussion on various issues related to KRIA.
Memorandum to the Chief Secretary on International Right to Know Day(September 28, 2004)
A delegation of civil society leaders met the Chief Secretary Mr. K.K. Misra on September 28, 2004 (International Right to Know Day) to plead for making the Karnataka Right to Information Act more effective and citizen friendly.
The delegation, led by Public Affairs Centre Chairman Dr. Samuel Paul, pointed out that the implementation of the Act has a mixed record so far, though many of its provisions are forward looking and praiseworthy. The group proposed measures to improve the implementation of the Act and to strengthen it through amendments. They stressed the need to ensure that all departments and public agencies appoint competent authorities with whom the public can interact, and to reduce the exorbitant charges (Rs. 5 per page) for furnishing the information sought. They pointed out that the appellate authority’s functioning should be improved and made more impartial. Many applicants for information have faced considerable delays and non-response from the agencies both in Bangalore and other districts. The delegation sought an amendment to the Act to include penalties on the officials for failure to comply with the voluntary disclosure provisions of the law. The government and its agencies could also place more information about its operations, finances, etc., in the public domain though websites or reports so that citizens do not have to seek such information under the Act.
The need to increase the awareness of government staff about the Right to Information law was also emphasized by the delegation. All agencies/offices should prominently display information about their functions and services and name the officers to be contacted. There should be a provision under this Act to furnish urgent information to applicants within 48 hours. An independent monitoring authority or committee that includes non-officials to act as a watchdog on the implementation of the Act has also been proposed. A law that merely remains a paper tiger is of little use to the citizen, the delegation said.
In response to this, the Chief Secretary informed the delegation that he had already issued necessary directions to all departments to bring information into the public domain, and assured them that their recommendations would be duly considered.
Social Activists Meet Chief Secretary on Right to Information (December 31, 2004) Chief Secretary directs all departments to make relevant information available on websites and other media
A second meeting of the KRIA Katte with the Chief Secretary, Mr. K.K. Misra, on the working of the Karnataka Right to Information Act (KRIA) resulted in a number of decisions to strengthen the implementation of KRIA and to make more information available in the public domain. The delegation of the KRIA Katte, a forum of individuals and organisations working to energise the right to information in Karnataka, was led by Dr. Samuel Paul, Chairman, Public Affairs Centre (PAC) and comprised of Anuradha Rao of PAC, Somasekhar K.V. of Grahak Shakti, & Palyam Suresh. This was a follow-up to the first meeting held on 28th September 2004 – the “International Right to Know (RTK) Day”.
The meeting was also attended by Mr. V. K. K. Gore, Additional Chief Secretary; Mr. Chiranjiv Singh, Additional Chief Secretary and Development Commissioner; Principal Secretaries & heads of various departments. After a presentation of the Katte’s recommendations by Dr. Paul, the Chief Secretary and other Secretaries agreed that all government departments and service providers should make available all relevant information through various means, viz., pamphlets, posters, notice boards, radio, websites, etc.
The Chief Secretary also requested Dr. Paul and the Katte to undertake a review of Citizens’ Charters in the following departments: Police, Hospitals, Commercial Taxes, Rural Development, RTO and Stamps & Registration. Several heads of departments readily agreed to participate in this Audit, which would be conducted in two phases – Phase I would be a critical analysis of the contents of the Charters based on “good charter” criteria and Phase II would consist of an Audit to assess whether Charters are being implemented in practice.
Responding to the Katte’s requests, Mr. Chiranjiv Singh stated that henceforth all training programmes could incorporate a module on KRIA. Mr. Misra said the Information Department would be told to launch a multimedia publicity campaign in lieu of the current low levels of awareness about KRIA. He also assured the delegation that action would be taken to remedy the reluctance on the part of Appellate Authorities to pass orders against erring Competent Authorities.